Cities of Signs

by Henry Farrell on January 6, 2004

I haven’t been blogging the last couple of weeks, because I and my wife have been on a belated honeymoon in Venice and Florence. For Venice, I brought along one of my favourite books, Italo Calvino’s _Invisible Cities_. Calvino’s book is a series of accounts of imaginary cities – thin cities, hidden cities, trading cities, continuous cities, cities of signs – each of which is Venice, or refers to Venice, or points to Venice by virtue of Venice’s absence. By happenstance, I also brought along “Steven Berlin Johnson’s”: _Emergence_, which I’ve been meaning to read for a while. To my surprise, Johnson’s book also turns out to have a chapter that is more or less about cities of signs, and moreover uses Florence as its main example of how the city makes itself legible to its inhabitants. Johnson talks about how the organization of cities into neighborhoods, each of which may be a discrete and specialized cluster of activity, stores knowledge and makes it legible. If you are a Florentine who wishes to buy silk products, you know that you need to go to Por Santa Maria. Similarly, if you are a producer of silk, it may behove you to locate your activities close to other silk producers in Por Santa Maria, so that you may more easily exchange ideas, goods and services. In this way, neighborhoods may serve to collate, exchange, and represent information. All of this is of particular interest to me – the larger part of my Ph.D. research was on the “clustering of economic activity in Italy”: More importantly, Calvino’s and Johnson’s books offer refreshing and unusual vantage points on two cities which are a little stale to many tourists because of the overwhelming conventional wisdom about where you should go and what you should do.



Breaker 01.06.04 at 5:58 pm

I have not been to Italy, so I can’t comment about Italian cities. But you find the same kind of organization elsewhere – in fact it is almost universal. For example, clustering of similar industries and store outlets in Hanoi, Vietnam or clustering of home improvement supply stores in Anaheim, California – clusters of carpet, furniture and tile stores – or clusters of antique stores in Orange, California and New Orleans, Louisiana or clusters of outlet stores along freeway entry points to urban areas such as Cabazon, California, or the clusters of theme parks around Orlando, Florida. This kind of organization is all too obvious. It even accounts for the success of the American regional mall or now, Walmart – they have everything. Urban planners here in California have been aware of this effect for at least 50 years, maybe longer. There is nothing new here.


Zizka 01.06.04 at 6:09 pm

Venice is sort of the example of how spectatorship, sentimantality, and tourism falsify things. By the XIX C. Venice was moribund and had become a quaint place for people with money to recreate and have love affairs impossible back home. During the great age which made Venice interesting, it was a predatory military entity which dominated much of the Mediterranean and Black Sea area. (Fredrick Lane, Venice and History). It also had a notoriously conservative / traditionalist political establishment and wasn’t lax and funloving the way the tourists thought.

I had a Welsh-American friend who had a sentimental book about the Castles of Wales. My little knowledge of British history told me that all these castles were built by the Norman English who were squelching Welsh freedom for good. Castles as such are brutal places built to withstand seige, and not really pretty at all when operative.

I mean, if I travel I’ll do the same as everyone else. I’m just saying.


David Sucher 01.06.04 at 8:36 pm

The phenomenon even has a name: “agglomerative economies.”

Businesses of a similar type gain by proximity to each other and cluster for a variety of reasons: access to suppliers, customers, labor force etc etc.


Harley Peyton 01.06.04 at 10:36 pm

Don’t know if you’re still there, but if so, seek out Paul Morand’s memoir, ‘Venices’. Great reading for the trip.


a different chris 01.06.04 at 11:04 pm

You. Brought. Books. Along. On. Your. Honeymoon.

Shudder. That gives me a vision of my bloated body floating down a canal.


Doug 01.07.04 at 7:49 am

In Henry’s defense, different chris, the key word is “belated.” (And the Calvino, for all its inventive variations, is a quickie.)


Matthew 01.07.04 at 12:25 pm

Shame to go to Venice and stay in the hotel reading books. There are some nice churches there, you know?
More seriously, I enjoyed immensly getting lost in the winding small streets of the town. Far from the beaten tourist track…


Tor 01.07.04 at 5:34 pm

I brought along a small library of books that I had been eagerly anticipating reading on my honeymoon. A man’s gotta have choices. We were on the beach, so it wasn’t too surprising, but my wife understands that I read an enourmous amount. That being said, I didn’t get much reading done…

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